Court ruling upends driver's license roadblock

Photo by Dave Boyd
In a Sept. 2001 case, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled a driverÕs license roadblock had violated the state constitutionÕs protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
By Thomas Wilson
A Tennessee Supreme Court ruling on the justification of driver's license roadblocks effectively negated the state's case in Carter County Criminal Court last week.
Judge Jerry Beck ruled to suppress evidence against Jeffrey Lee Campbell, who was charged with driving on a suspended license after being stopped at a driver's license checkpoint conducted by the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
Public defender Bobby Oaks cited a Tennessee Supreme Court decision State of Tennessee v. Hicks filed Sept. 2001 that found driver's license roadblocks did not hold up to standards under a similar decision regarding sobriety roadblocks.
"In order for a roadblock to pass constitutional muster, the roadblock must by properly conducted under General Order 410 of the state Department of Safety," Oaks told the court. He added that the burden was on the Department of Safety to demonstrate "...that safety is enhanced by driver's license checkpoints."
The state supreme court held that the driver's license roadblock in the Hicks case violated the protections against unreasonable seizures under Article I, section 7 of the Tennessee Constitution.
The court ruled the state failed to demonstrate a sufficiently compelling interest to justify suspicionless stops to check driver's licenses. The court also ruled the state did not demonstrate roadblocks were productive to "qualify as a reasonable law enforcement practice" and the roadblock was not conducted to guidelines or supervision to minimize the risk of arbitrary intrusion on individual liberty and limit the discretion of officers at the scene.
In a 1999 decision, State v. Downey, the supreme court has ruled officers could stop motorists at a sobriety roadblock to detect drivers operating under the influence of alcohol. The state has presented copious evidence that sobriety -- or "DUI roadblocks" -- benefit public safety by taking drunken drivers off the road, Oaks said in court. However, he noted the state has not demonstrated with analytical study that roadblocks to check driver's licenses make highways safer for the public.
"In DUI context, the Tennessee Supreme Court says we have to get these people off the roads," Oaks said. "Between Hicks and Downey, the state has to be able to show with data from the National Transportation Safety Board and Tennessee Department of Safety that DUI checkpoints are to address problems with drunk drivers."
Campbell was charged with a fourth offense of driving on a suspended license. Beck said that while the driver's license roadblock might be permitted under the U.S. Constitution, it did not under the Tennessee Constitution.
"That will legally do away with our case," Kenneth Baldwin, assistant district attorney general, said in court Tuesday following Beck's decision.
According to court records, a vehicle driven Larry Allen Hicks was stopped at a driver's license roadblock on Oct. 11, 1997 in Hamilton County. The roadblock was being conducted by members of the Tennessee Highway Patrol as well as the Chattanooga and Red Bank police departments.
While the Hicks' vehicle was stopped, an officer on the scene detected the smell of marijuana coming from the appellant's car. Hicks was placed under arrest after the police dog of a K-9 officer alerted police that drugs were present in the vehicle, according to the court report. A subsequent search of the appellant's car uncovered five pounds of marijuana in the passenger seat.
According to the supreme court opinion, a state trooper who testified at Hicks' trial stated that the officers did not provide any advance publicity concerning the roadblock, that they did not post any signs warning approaching motorists of the roadblock, and that they did not use any orange safety cones to direct traffic.
The trooper also testified that none of the officers was wearing a safety vest or carrying an illuminated baton as was otherwise required by General Order 410 for night roadblocks.
The trial court ruled to suppress evidence gathered at the roadblock based on the argument by Hicks' defense attorney. Prosecutors appealed the case to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court's decision. Hicks then appealed to the state supreme court which handed down its ruling Sept. 11, 2001.
In the Hicks case, the Supreme Court ruled the state failed to establish a "sufficiently compelling interest" justifying the need to maintain driver's license roadblocks and that the particular roadblock in this case failed to comply with the standards set forth in the ruling that found roadblocks to check the sobriety of motorists.
State law prohibits highway patrol officers from stopping any vehicle for the sole purpose of checking the validity of a driver's license.
Baldwin requested the court reset the case until the state could further examine any alternative avenues to pursue the charge against Campbell. Beck reset the case for Sept. 29.